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How to keep your sanity with "lay" and "lie"

Is it correct to say "lay down that pistol", why can't we with equal justification say "lay down for a nap"?

These two verbs are a particularly common and troublesome problem in English grammar (and not only to Americans!), and one well worth devoting some time to. The key to the entire problem lies in your complete understanding of the difference between transitive, intransitive, and passive verbs.

A verb is passive if its subject receives its action, i.e. the thieves were put in jail

An active verb is transitive if it has an object, i.e. the thief stole a necklace

Here are the two keys that will unlock the secrets of lay and lie:

  1. Lie is exclusively an intransitive verb. If an intransitive verb is required (because there is no object) use some form of lie.  
  2. Lay, on the other hand, is a transitive verb. If a transitive verb is required (because there is an object), use some form of lay.

For example:

Lie - intransitive

  • The hope of democracy lies in the economic security of the common man.
  • Lie down for an hour before dinner
  • Why do you lie in bed all morning when there is so much work to be done?
  • Whenever she lies down, the phone rings.
  • His interests lie in the fields of science and technology

Lay - transitive

  • The hen lays an egg
  • Please lay the baby on its back
  • They will lay the body to rest in Woodlawn Cemetery

But the trouble really starts with the past tense. The past tense of lay is laid, so far so good. But the past tense of lie is lay!

Before you become too confused to be of any further use to society, let us make a table:

Verb Present Past Past participle
lay(intransitive) lay laid laid
lie(intransitive) lie lay lain

For example:

Today I lay the baby in the crib
Yesterday I laid the baby in the crib
We have laid rugs in all the rooms

Today I lie down
Yesterday I lay down
Have you lain awake all night?

The Rule

Lie is intransitive, lay is transitive. Lie only has an active voice. Lay may be either active or passive. Once you have mastered these principles, the rest is a matter of forming good habits, so that they become reflexive.

How to remember the rule: the i in lie will remind you of intransitive, the a in lay will remind you of transitive and passive; in both these terms the first vowel is a.


I have noticed that French and Italian speakers often use this word to describe the French/Italian éventuellement/eventualmente. The correct way of conveying this doubt in English is to use possibly or might. Eventually means: at an unspecified later time, in the end.

For example:

Il y aura Paul et éventuellement Nicole: Paul will be there and possibly Nicole
Cela pourrait éventuellement servir: That might be useful
Tu viendras? ... Éventuellement: Will you come? I might
Je relis et éventuellement je corrige: I reread and if necessary I correct


Il finira par le faire He will do it eventually.

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